Commandments, Judgments, and Statutes
The Law of Moses is much more than the Ten Commandments; it encompasses a broad range of social, economic, legal, practical, and spiritual issues. It is a way of life; a political system; a constitution for the Israelites. The Law is composed of three main elements: Commandments, Judgments, and Statutes. Chapter 21 is the beginning of the Judgments revealed in the Law of Moses. The content is both interesting and dated. It cannot be understood out of historical or political context. There are judgments which do not apply to us today, but the principles undergirding them are instructive.
Exodus 21:1 Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them
Commandments, Judgments, Statutes! Commandments, Judgments, Statutes! Don’t forget these three components of the Law of Moses. We are going to number the Judgments for easy reference.
1. The handling of male, Hebrew servants
2. Rules regarding maidservants
3. Judgments for manslaughter and murder
4. Punishment for assaulting parents
5. Punishment for kidnapping
6. Punishment for cursing parents
7. Compensation for injuries in cases of assault
8. Punishment for killing servants
9. Judgments in cases where assault of a pregnant woman results in fetal death
10. Compensation for Injuries suffered by servants at the hands of their masters (specifically loss of an eye or tooth)
11. Compensation for injury or death caused by an ox
12. Compensation for an animal injured by falling into a pit
13. Cases where one man’s ox injures another man’s ox
It’s an ugly and violent world out there. The first subject discussed is violence. What should be done in each instance? The Israelites have not been free for so long, they have no frame of reference for dealing with such issues. They are used to the rule of Egypt. Now, they will have to rule themselves. There is no police; no prison; no welfare; no separation between church and state; and few judges.
Exodus 21:2-6 If thou buy an Hebrew servant
Slavery is a dirty word in American History. There is no justification for it today. Interesting, then, that the institution of servitude is allowed both in the Old Testament and in the New (Eph. 6:5-9). From the Lord’s perspective, we are all servants, and there is nothing wrong with serving another as a maid, butler, cook, nanny, shepherd, etc. The problem is that the institution of slavery allows masters so much room to be abusive. American History coupled unrighteous dominion with racisms in horrific scenes of rape, murder, and violence. These horrors have likely been occurred in all nations and all ages where slavery was practiced. So why was it allowed by the Lord?
Human nature seeks individual freedom. In our society, liberty is one of our greatest treasures. Certainly, the Israelites must have been thrilled to get away from the oppressive bondage of the Egyptians. The problem is that they have no experience with being freemen. For most, the lack of experience is hardly a problem. For others, slavery was a way of life. It was all they knew. Human nature also dictates that we gravitate to familiar things. Therefore, it would have been the preference of some newly freed Israelites to work for someone else—that is what they knew—that was their personal identity. Exchanging an oppressive Pharaoh as master for an understanding Israelite that remembers the horrors of bondage must have seemed a pleasant improvement (see also Mosiah 7:15; Alma 27:8-9). Wouldn’t the Hebrews treat their own with respect? Indeed, they were to treat their servants like family.
Furthermore, in establishing cities in the land of Canaan, the Israelites would have to take care of everyone. There was no welfare system. It was much easier for the poor to work for food, clothing, and money while living with their masters rather than having their own homes. So we can think of servitude as a welfare program for primitive society. Our modern system of bosses exercising authority over their employees is not that much different. Spencer W. Kimball similarly spoke of servitude in this context.
"…the employer should treat his employees according to the golden rule, remembering that there is a Master in heaven who judges both employer and employee. Paul likewise enjoined a lofty standard upon employees:
'Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ,
... With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men...' (Eph. 6:5-6.)
"We may take this to mean, in modern terms, that the servant and employee should consistently give honest service, full and complete, and do for his employer what he would want an employee to do for him if he himself were the employer. Any other course calls for repentance." (The Miracle of Forgiveness [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969], 51)
Until celestial utopia is reached, there will always be those whose wealth or position allows them to exercise dominion over others. God will hold them responsible for their use of authority.
“In these times there was no such thing as free labor in the modern sense. Menservants and maidservants were the property of their master. But it must be remembered that freeborn wives and children were also legally under the power of the master of the house. He could sell his children to another Israelite just as well as his slaves. Once admit that one man can ‘own’ another and it becomes apparent that these laws tried to minimize the degradation in the relation of slave to master; the slaves were looked upon as members of the family.” (The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. by G. A. Buttrick et al [New York, Abingdon Press, 1952] vol. 1, p. 995)
The Sabbatical Year is designed to release Hebrew servants from an unpleasant situation. Six years might be a long time to work for someone you don’t like, but at least there would come an end.
“Some people are disturbed by violence and other harsh realities in the Old Testament. It was a barbarous time in the world, a time of murder, adultery, and child sacrifice, yet in Israel such practices were outlawed (see Ex. 20:13; Lev. 20:2). And slavery, though permitted, was changed to a more humane indentured servitude whereby slaves were allowed to rest on the Sabbath and freed after seven years (see Ex. 20:10; Ex. 21:2). A woman captured in war could not be touched until after she mourned her dead relatives for a full month and was then married (see Deut. 21:10–13). All ancient cultures discriminated against slaves and women, but those cultures with Judeo-Christian roots in the Bible eventually began to end such evils.” (Chris Conkling, “The Book That Built a Better World,” Ensign, Jan. 1998, 8)
Exodus 21:7-11 if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant
What kind of a father sells his daughter into slavery? This is a culture shock for us to even consider. On the other hand, every father wants his daughters to be taken care of. Shelter, clothing, food, and a loving environment are the first concerns. The daughter’s desire to choose her own husband was secondary, to say the least.
The arrangement has no modern corollary. The woman’s father receives money, almost a dowry, for putting her in servitude. She becomes a member of the new family, either a servant to the master, a concubine to the master, or a wife to the master’s son. Even if the betrothal is not consummated by the master or his son, the relationship is like a marriage so she is not freed in the Sabbatical year—that would be tantamount to divorce. It was the duty of the master to take care of her for the rest of her life; to try and sell her to another is described a deceitful act. Selling her as a slave to a Gentile nation where she would certainly be mistreated was prohibited. If the master was unable to treat her like family and provide for her, he was to let her go free.
If she marries one of the master’s sons, her status increases from maidservant to daughter. Note that the record doesn’t say “daughter-in-law;” it says “daughter,” further emphasizing the fact that she was a part of the family. There was no distinction of “in-laws.” If she marries the master, her status increases to wife or concubine and her financial support could not be diminished.
Again, the Hebrew women were used to slavery. That is what they knew. We find the idea abhorrent, but it probably felt pretty natural to them. The big picture for organizing a new society is that this system takes care of all the women. Imagine no single sisters, no single mothers, no lonely widows. They are all a part of a family; they are all provided for.
Exodus 21:12-17 He that smiteth a man so that he die, shall be surely put to death
“Some have thought that because God says, "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13Ex. 20:13), he, too, cannot or would not pass a sentence of death upon anyone or otherwise execute judgment or punishment upon mankind. It must be remembered that the same God who said "Thou shalt not kill" commanded men to inflict capital punishment upon their fellowmen for certain grievous sins, such as murder, adultery, strong addiction to alcohol, abortion, idolatry, and homosexuality. And he gave both commandments in the same document, the Pentateuch, which contains the Ten Commandments, the law of Moses, and the civil code God gave Moses. It also should be remembered that God knows best when men are better off dead than alive. One who truly believes in the goodness of God and in life after death is not much disturbed by this. Those who have studied the scriptures and profane history know that infinitely more are killed when the judgments of God come down on nations that would have been natural and social calamities rarely distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. And many of them are the natural result of disobedience to God’s laws.
”None of the above is to be construed as advocating that capital punishment should be applied as extensively as in the time of Moses.
“The testimonies in the passages offered here and in many other places show that God does execute judgment on the world. The Bible and the Book of Mormon support each other in this doctrine.” (Glenn L. Pearson and Reid E. Bankhead, Building Faith with the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986], 44)
“Ancient scriptures indicate that capital punishment is an appropriate penalty for murder. God said to Noah, ‘And whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for man shall not shed the blood of man’ (JST Gen. 9:12). And to Moses the Lord said: ‘He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death’ (Lev. 24:17). Thus it is clear that when the civil and religious authorities were combined, as in the days of the Old Testament prophets, capital punishment was the directed result.
“In modern times with the separation of church and state, the power to take physical life is reserved to the state. Modern revelations do not oppose capital punishment, but they do not direct its imposition to civil government. In the same revelation where the Lord instructed the Prophet Joseph Smith, ‘And again, I say, thou shall not kill; but he that killeth shall die,’ the Lord made the application of capital punishment contingent on the laws of civil government: ‘And it shall come to pass, that if any persons among you shall kill they shall be delivered up and dealt with according to the laws of the land…and it shall be proved according to the laws of the land’ (D&C 42:19, 79). In a headnote to the published account of this revelation, the Prophet specified the revelation embraced ‘the law of the Church,’ which might indicate that even when capital punishment does not result from murder the murderer dies as to things pertaining to the Spirit.
“The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles affirmed this position against murder in an official declaration dated December 12, 1889, written in response to rumors perpetrated by enemies of the Church that it taught its members that they were not bound by the laws of the United States. Included in that official declaration is the proclamation ‘this Church views the shedding of human blood with the utmost abhorrence’ (MFP 3:183).
“Church leaders have frequently made statements consistent with the scriptures and declarations quoted above. Elder Orson F. Whitney said in the October 1910 general conference, ‘To execute a criminal is not murder’ (CR, Oct. 1910, p. 51). Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote, ‘Mortal man is not authorized, except in imposing the requisite death penalties for crimes, to take the blood of his fellow beings under any circumstances’ (McConkie, p. 257).
“In summary, capital punishment is viewed in the doctrines of the Church to be an appropriate penalty for murder, but that penalty is proper only after the offender has been found guilty in a lawful public trial by constitutionally authorized civil authorities.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 255)
Exodus 21:13 if a man lie not in wait… then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee
The Israelites had no prisons. Accordingly, manslaughter was dealt with by sending the guilty to designated cities for bad guys, not putting them in prison. In one sense, the manslaughter punishment is lenient since usually the Law of Moses would require “life for life.” God understands the bar room brawl behavior of the natural man, and the sometimes fatal consequences. The interesting thing to me is that Moses committed manslaughter in the Hebrew who was beaten by the Egyptian (Ex. 2:12-13).
Exodus 21:15, 17 he that smiteth his father, or his mother… shall surely be put to death
Imagine a society with no prisons, no separation between church and state, and a strong emphasis on obedience to God and parents. Even with a good historical imagination, it seems extreme to us to kill a violent child. Abinadi observed that the Law of Moses was “a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God” (Mosiah 13:29). It is “very strict” indeed to have a child put to death for assaulting a parent. No record of this law being enforced can be found in the Old Testament. Most likely, parents wouldn’t turn in their children to the authorities if might mean their execution.
Exodus 21:18-19 if men strive together… and he die not, but keepeth his bed
Someone who is injured to the point of disability should be reimbursed for the loss of his time. This one element of compensation for loss of productivity pervades to our day; restitution is a common theme of the judgment sections of the Exodus.
“The Bible outlines a way to deal with crimes like these: restitution. Restitution includes compensating a person for stolen or damaged property or physical harm done to someone. Restitution laws cover a variety of circumstances: assault (Exodus 21:18–19); bodily injury (21:26–27); liability (21:33–36); theft (22:1–4); property damage (22:5–6); irresponsibility (22:7–13); and the loss or damage of borrowed items (22:14–15). Voluntary restitution required the return of the item plus ‘one-fifth more’ (Lev. 6:1–7). In most cases double restitution is required (Exodus 22:4, 7–9). Some crimes required payment of four (22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6) or five (22:1) times the loss or injury. Multiple restitution was usually mandated for items that had extended value. Sheep reproduce at a high rate and their wool can be made into clothing. To steal a sheep is to rob its owner of present and future productivity. An ox has similar value plus the added ability to pull plows and carts, essential functions in an agrarian society.” (http://americanvision.org/2480/the-biblical-doctrine-of-restitution/)
Exodus 21:24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand…
When this mantra becomes the basis for revenge, man eventually finds himself blind and toothless. Was this the original intent?
“In Old Testament times, the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ was given as a principle to guide judges, so that their judgments might be just, and so that retribution might be taken out of the hands of individuals.
“As Alma explains to his son Corianton, the operative principle was restoration: “to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or … good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous.” (Alma 41:13). Or, as the Savior put it in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’ (Matt. 7:2.)
“In the final judgment, eye shall be restored for eye, tooth for tooth, mercy for mercy, kindness for kindness—and significantly, evil hereafter for evil life.
“When the Savior gave the Sermon on the Mount, he quoted, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ then added, ‘but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ (Matt. 5:38–39.) The Lord was not withdrawing the principle of divine justice he gave to Moses on Sinai; rather, he is remonstrating against the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees of his day, whose understanding of the intent of the scripture was in error. Instead of confining judgment to those in authority, they interpreted the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ as a justification for an individual taking vengeance whenever he received an injury or insult.
“The children of Israel had been specifically commanded, as part of the Law of Moses: ‘Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ (Lev. 19:18.) Thus, they were forbidden not only to take revenge but also to bear any gr-3udge which might lead to retaliation. Instead, their duty was to love, leaving vengeance to the Lord. (See Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94:1.)
“Thus when the Savior taught the people not to seek revenge in the Sermon on the Mount, he was merely restoring a principle he had given through Moses and was seeking to eliminate a tradition of worldly teaching that had departed from it.” (Ermel J. Morton, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Aug. 1981, 29)
Exodus 21:28-36 If an ox bore a man or woman, that they die
Apparently, the oxen in Moses’ day were quite a violent strain.